Academic journal article MELUS

Beyond Rangoon: An Interview with Wendy Law-Yone

Academic journal article MELUS

Beyond Rangoon: An Interview with Wendy Law-Yone

Article excerpt

Wendy Law-Yone is the critically acclaimed author of the novels, The Coffin Tree (1983) and Irrawaddy Tango (1993). Born in 1947 in Burma (now Myanmar), she began writing after a career in music was derailed by the politically-motivated arrest and detention of her father, dissident journalist Edward Law-Yone. After escaping from Burma in the late 1960s to join her first husband, journalist Sterling Seagrave, she immigrated to the United States in 1973 and finished a college degree. Law-Yone raised a family in Washington, D.C. and has only recently begun to write full-time. She works as a freelance journalist and book reviewer for the Washington Post and is currently in residence at the University of East Anglia, Norwich on a David TK Wong Fellowship. Her novel, Wanting, and memoir, The OM Burma Road, are forthcoming from Ecco/Harper.

Law-Yone's fiction is well-known by Asian Americanists who have looked to her work to shed light not only on the Southeast Asian experience, but on the underside of immigration and acculturation. Yet her writing also testifies to the post-independence struggles that attend the processes of decolonization. This interview was conducted over two separate periods in 1996 and 2001. In part, it details how the political upheavals surrounding the end of British colonial role in Burma are reflected in her own writing. Having lived under a military regime and now witnessing the current state of politics in Myanmar from a position of voluntary exile in the US, Law-Yone discusses her feelings about Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the conflicts between the State Law and Order Council (now the State Peace and Development Council) and the National League for Democracy, the struggles of ethnic armies on the Myanmar-Thai border, and the possibilities of her own return.

LB: Could you talk a little bit about how your family background influenced your career as a writer?

WL: My father, Edward Law-Yone, was a journalist, and later a publisher, so he was very much involved with language and expression. He had an innate kind of preoccupation with language. A product of his generation, he wrote and spoke well. Burma had only recently won independence from British rule in 1948 and intellectuals still wrote in the kind of colonial English of the time. My father, for example, leaned toward the J.B. Priestly style. His own natural style was biting. He was a very forceful communicator and that I know made an impression on me. He was always the center of attention because he told stories so well, he wrote so well.

LB: Would you say that he was a political writer or that he saw himself more as a journalist, as an unbiased reporter?

WL: He occupied a very unusual position vis-a-vis his journalism and his political standing. He was a sort of Walter Lippmann figure. We don't have really figures like that anymore in modern journalism. He called himself a journalist, but it seems as if no sooner was he a journalist than he became a publisher, and a very influential one at that. As a publisher, I think it was his editorials, his opinion pieces, that he was known for. He was not a politician, although, he was a politician. His standing in the circles that mattered, and the nature of Burmese political life made that inevitable.

LB: Did his imprisonment for five years affect your decision to become a writer?

WL: Not directly. But it probably set in motion a kind of direction that my life took, and those things led to other things. It's fair to say, though, that until his arrest in 1963, my intellect, such as it was, was adrift. I always liked telling stories; I was not a particularly great reader or anything. But just about the time he was arrested, it happened that I began to love the idea of learning, of being good at things. At the time I was really set on a whole different course: I was studying music. But when my father was arrested and my plans to study abroad were thwarted, all of that was short-circuited. …

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